Two charged with human trafficking of undocumented migrants at Delimara

Two denied bail over the arrival of 10 undocumented Bangladeshi nationals at Delimara in September • Four other men pleaded guilty

A court has denied bail to two men accused of criminal conspiracy and human trafficking in connection with the arrival of 10 undocumented Bangladeshi nationals at Delimara in September.

Four Syrian men, who were arraigned separately received suspended sentences after pleading guilty to related charges.

Inspector Karl Roberts and Lydon Zammit issued criminal conspiracy and human trafficking charges against 64-year-old Robert Mangion and 46-year-old Tunisian national Mohammed Derbel, in the first arraignment.

Inspector Roberts explained to Magistrate Marseanne Farrugia, presiding the arraignment, how the police had been informed about illegal immigrants disembarking a sailing boat at Delimara at 3:30am on September 14, 2022 police were informed that immigrants had disembarked at Delimara from a sailing boat which had been accompanied by a luzzu.

Ten Bangladeshi nationals were arrested there, he said.

Police had then examined call profiles relating to mobile phones used in the area at that time and this had led to the arrest of a foreign national who had been at the boat’s helm. He was subsequently charged in September and had admitted to the charges in court.

His name is subject to a publication ban. During his arraignment, the man had testified behind closed doors at the request of the prosecution. Inspector Roberts explained that the man had testified to having been acting on the instructions of the accused, Mohammed Derbel.

One of the boats used in the operation, the Madonna tal-Karmnu 1, was registered to Roger Mangion, who was also subsequently arrested on 19 September and later released on police bail.

That day, it emerged that one of the crew members identified an Indonesian man who indicated someone in the area as the captain, he had told the police that his passport was in Mangion’s possession and was arrested after refusing to give the police his address.

Further investigations revealed that this person was Mohammed Terbel, a 47-year-old Tunisian national.

His passport was found to have expired in 2012.

A habeas corpus application had been filed by his lawyers, to contest the legality of his arrest, but no illegality had been found by the magistrate.  Inspector Roberts explained that in proceedings before immigration appeals board his lawyers had asked for bail, and claimed that he had lived in Sliema for many years.

But further police investigations showed that he actually lived in Birkirkara. An arrest warrant was issued on October 2 and he was arrested at the detention centre the next day. He was accused of assisting more than three persons to enter Malta illegally.

Terbel’s defence lawyers Jose Herrera, Matthew Xuereb and Christina Camilleri Deguara attempted to challenge the legality of the man’s arrest, arguing that man had filed a request for asylum and that the police were requesting his removal from the Maltese Islands while simultaneously wanting him to face human trafficking charges.

Inspector Roberts explained that the accused had been detained by the Principal Immigration officer as he didn’t have a passport or address. He did not appear on the systems used by the visa department, nor Identity Malta, nor the international protection agency on 19 September, said the inspector.

The removal order was issued because his identity was yet to be established and because it was up to him to prove that his presence in Malta was legal. “He was inexistent to the Maltese State so we had to issue the removal order.”

Derbel’s passport was only found after his arrest, inside a drawer in his residence in Birkirkara, said the inspector, adding that the man had declared the wrong address to the immigration appeals board. “He was never spoken to about this case during his detention by the principal immigration officer. He was always detained under the Immigration Act, not the Criminal Code.” 

“We are saying that he needs to stay in Malta until the international protection agency decides on his asylum claim. But he has to be held in detention as he has no fixed address.”

Lawyer Farrugia Sacco, appearing for Roger Mangion, did not contest the legality of his client’s arrest.

In Terbel’s case, however, Herrera declared that he was contesting the validity of the arrest, arguing that the investigation into his client appeared to have started when he was first detained on 19 September and so he had remained technically detained to this day, a period in excess of 48 hours, an allegation which was rebutted by the prosecution.

The court ruled that Terbel had been validly arraigned within the 48 hours period. It noted that the defence was arguing that the reason for his arrest on 19 September was not, in truth, the breach of immigration law, but that of trafficking of persons.

The court said it was of the opinion that once the accused had been arraigned before it on these charges on the strength of an arrest warrant issued on 2 October and brought before the court within 48 hours in execution of the warrant, his arrest was valid for the purposes of these proceedings.

“If the defence is of the opinion that the accused was being illegally detained before his arrest, this complaint does not fall within the competence of this court as a court of compilation,” ruled the magistrate.

Herrera then dictated a note, reserving the defence’s constitutional position in view of this pronouncement.

The arraignment then proceeded with the examination of the accused, who both pleaded not guilty to the charges and requested bail.

After deliberating on the issue of bail, the court rejected the requests due to the risk of tampering with evidence, in view of the fact that witnesses had not yet testified and, in Mangion’s case, the risk of absconding due to the fact that he worked at sea.

Malta-resident Syrians handed suspended sentences for picking up family members who had just come ashore

Next to be charged were four Syrian men, aged between 31 and 48. 

Inspectors Zammit and Roberts accused the men of assisting the disembarkation of illegal immigrants and breaching the Immigration Act.

Lawyer Alfred Abela, assisting the accused together with lawyers Noel Bianco and legal aid lawyer Mattia Felice, asked for a ban on the publication of the names of the accused, saying that as the men planned to admit the charges, there was a risk to their families and the ongoing investigations. Bartolo said the defendants wished to assist the police further.

Inspector Lydon Zammit confirmed that the men had disclosed information to the police and were assisting in the investigations. He did not object to the defence’s request for a ban.

As the accused were all part of the small local Syrian community, Abela, for the defence, submitted that the publication of their names would cause prejudice to their defence as well as the investigation.

Magistrate Farrugia upheld the request and ordered a ban on the publication of the names of the accused, to avoid impeding the police investigations.

Abela submitted that the defendants were prepared to plead guilty, in return for a suspended sentence. 

Inspector Zammit explained that the roles of these defendants were different to that of the two individuals who had been charged immediately before.

They had picked up family members from the boat and taken them to live with them, said the inspector. “We don’t want to send a message that this is somehow acceptable, but we understand the interest in taking family members to safety.”

Abela pointed out that the act, while illegal, had not been done for profit. Helping family was a cultural and religious obligation, Bianco added.

The court, in view of the accused’s admission of guilt, gave them time to reconsider their plea. The men reiterated their guilty plea.

The court found the men guilty in view of their plea, sentencing them to imprisonment for one year, suspended for three years. The men were warned of the consequences of committing another offence in this period.